According to The Onion of some weeks ago, Michael Jackson died years ago and was replaced by an alien body snatcher whose presence at Neverland can be documented by the faint but distinct flapping of invisible leathery wings. It captured something, that description, a pervasive sentiment that there is something peculiarly otherworldly about this trial. More recently, I heard commentators on NPR’s On the Media describe the trial as one that has not gotten the kind of attention that other celebrity debacles have commanded. Unlike Scott Peterson or O.J. Simpson, People magazine has given almost no cover status to the Jackson case. He doesn’t fit the “narrative,” apparently. The narrative requires a victim who can play the role of innocence aggrieved and a defendant who can embody pure villainy. While Jackson’s trial is appalling, it is not the stuff of ordinary tabloid catharsis; as one commentator put it, this is just plain “icky.”
The precise nature of “ick” went undefined. But it undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that while there’s plenty of underage sex, it’s allegedly of the homosexual persuasion, which tends to send your average reporter into paroxysms of anxiety. There’s a race card bandied about, usually good for some fun, but no one’s quite sure which race that might be. There’s untold wealth but not a bit of it spent on things most grownups would covet. And while there’s an abundance of graft and greed and shady dealing, it sullies every soul within fifty miles of the courthouse; there’s just no one to root for.
This exceptionalism, however, disguises the degree to which there is a narrative norm at the core of this. Not just a story of pedophilia, which surely makes it so particularly hard to ponder, but also a plot line that merges P.T. Barnum and Count Dracula. The very strangeness of the trial marks an aversion from seeing, an awkwardness about naming, a hesitation to judge. It is an odd reaction, given the moral temperament of the times; it is a departure from the no-holds-barred rhetoric of good versus evil, of innocence and guilt.
Michael Jackson’s narrative is not a simple one that fits onto the front page of something like the New York Post. Rather, there is a maze of narratives all running in quite complex and opposite directions. First of all, the allegations are not that different from the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. Much like (if also utterly different from) a priest, Jackson has spent his life cloaked in a certain reverence, accorded a degree of trust and hero worship that looks blind and foolish to those of us beyond the ring of enchantment. There’s the tangled narrative of Jackson’s sexuality: People have speculated that he is gay; his marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and at least one of the mothers of his children were generally met with leering cynicism. But whether he is gay or straight somehow seems to miss the point when it comes to the kind of pedophilia with which he is charged: I’m no expert, but it seems to me that he hasn’t grown up enough to have an adult sexual identity; he seems stuck at some stage of prepubescence, when life was just one big happy pajama party. I am intrigued by the extent to which Jackson’s behavior has suggested the need for psychiatric intervention for a very long time. I wonder that no one in his personal or professional life has insisted on it.